Methodist trial: "Experts on both sides of the divide agree"

In a quick glance through some of the coverage of the United Methodist trial of the Rev. Karen Dammann (shown at right in a United Methodist News Service photo) I found something interesting -- a newspaper bravely steering to the left of the New York Times in coverage of a moral and religious issue.

That would be the Washington Post, with a story that is -- even by modern journalistic standards -- starkly one-sided. There is no way to do a content analysis of the whole story, so let's look at one core issue: In terms of numbers, which side is on the upswing? Oh, and there is a related question: Who is to blame for this painful dispute?

The Post story notes that the United Methodist powers that be are in the midst of a branding campaign to promote peace and harmony:

Outside the courtroom in a church social hall, protesters carried signs saying "Closed Minds, Closed Hearts, Closed Doors" -- a reference to the church's $18 million television advertising campaign, which uses the slogan, "Open Minds, Open Hearts, Open Doors: the People of the United Methodist Church."

Church officials say the four-year campaign has been successful, boosting overall attendance by 7 percent and first-time visitors at 150 test churches by 14 percent. Some worry that those gains could be offset by negative publicity about the trial. But a church spokesman, Stephen Drachler, said the trial also "shows the church living its faith and opening minds. In the United Methodist Church, as in society, people don't agree on every issue."

This makes it pretty clear that in the eyes of reporter Alan Cooperman (the Post specialist covering the world of oldline Protestantism), the people who are defending the church's teachings on marriage and sex are undercutting a church-growth campaign. This would then mean that it is the traditionalists who are causing the church to decline -- that's bad for business. Thus, it would be the progressives who are on the side of health and growth.

This sounds strange, in light of reporting at National Public Radio, the Atlantic Monthly and a host of other places showing that the church-growth wave shaping these doctrinal debates is on the side of the traditionalists -- especially if the voices of Third World churches are taken into account. We can also see similar patterns in churches here in the United States. Look for similar tensions between Catholic leaders in, let's say, Europe and Africa in the chess game leading up to the next papal election.

Or consider this information from a New York Times story on this trial, written by veteran religion writer Laurie Goodstein. It contains something amazing -- a highly relevant and apparently non-controversial fact. Journalists need to look for this kind of information.

The United Methodist Church -- the nation's second-largest Protestant denomination, with about 8.3 million members -- has remained so torn over homosexuality that it has argued over its stance at every quadrennial meeting for the last 32 years. Based on previous votes at the conventions, it appears that about two-thirds of church members are opposed to acceptance of homosexuality, while about one-third are in favor, church experts on both sides of the divide agreed.

Now that is a major divide. Obviously, the larger story behind this trial up in Washington state is not going to fade away. This also implies that the current tensions are rooted in the efforts of a minority of United Methodists -- even in the North American context -- to change church doctrines against the will of a large traditionalist majority.

That would have been nice for a major newspaper such as the Washington Post to note. In this case, the New York Times goes further, adding material from a conservative source to balance large blocks of quoted material from progressives. According to Mark Tooley, director of the United Methodist project at the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a conservative group that watches mainline trends:

... the Pacific Northwest region not only was out of step with the majority of the church, but also was part of a liberal Western jurisdiction that is losing members while the more conservative Southeastern and overseas regions are growing.

"I suspect that homosexuality will be a point of contention for at least the next two decades," he said. "However, those of us on the traditional side are at least hopeful that in a demographic sense, the church is going in our direction."

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